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History Is Repeating Itself in Cleveland

What the Cavaliers didn’t do eight years ago set the groundwork for LeBron James’s departure. Are they making the same mistakes today?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was all good just eight years ago. Heading into the All-Star break, the 2009-10 Cavaliers were once again the league’s front-runners. They had just capped a 13-game win streak from mid-January to mid-February, the longest string of victories in Cleveland Cavaliers history. It had only ever been done one other time: the season prior, 2008-09, which was, by wins (66), the greatest Cavs regular season ever. In less than half a year, LeBron James would permanently shift the paradigm of player influence in the NBA, but in the rapture of Cleveland’s success to that point, even The New York Times pumped the brakes on James’s looming free agency to publish a feature on his personalized handshake routine with each of his teammates. The nonchalance of the Cavs’ regular-season supremacy became as much of a story as his expiring contract.

Almost a decade has passed. In the micro, the Cavs are worlds away from the regular-season worldbeaters they were in 2010. If anything, 2018 has flipped the old Cavs dilemma on its head: On paper, there is arguably more talent on their roster than LeBron’s playoff teams from 2006 to 2010 combined. But the stakes have exponentially risen in the decade that divides LeBron’s two lives as Cleveland’s native and prodigal son. It’s not just about star power; it’s about pieces that fit. In the macro, the Cavs find themselves more or less where they were in May 2010, after losing a six-game second-round series to the Boston Celtics, when the seeds of doubt had started to bud.

When history repeats itself, it gets more efficient. It’s abridged, because it can be—we fill the gaps with context from the past. And because of that, it’s easier to say this now than it was eight years ago: LeBron will leave if Cleveland doesn’t figure out the right move. The Cavs have a week to make it.

The skeleton key to the Cavaliers’ past and future is in a trade that never happened. The rumors started around this time in 2010. The Cavs had engaged in talks with the Suns, whose own prep-to-pro phenom, Amar’e Stoudemire, was slated to enter the open market by season’s end. The Cavs were still one move away—and they knew it. They knew how quickly success can vaporize in the postseason crucible. They knew they’d wasted the previous season’s 66-win anomaly. Cleveland raised its baseline over the summer by trading for Shaquille O’Neal, a husk of his former self who nonetheless could still bludgeon anyone within five feet of the low block for short stints. But the deadline was the last opportunity the Cavs would get to raise their ceiling. One could argue that the mere specter of Amar’e on the Cavs would have been the best teammate LeBron ever had up to that point.

Stoudemire for Zydrunas Ilgauskas, J.J. Hickson, a draft pick, and a player like Danny Green or Darnell Jackson to make salaries work. That was the offer. It was shockingly transparent to everyone. The night before the 2010 deadline, Stoudemire himself told reporters that the deal had a 50-50 shot of happening. Which side reneged on the deal depends on whom you ask, but in the annals of popular opinion, it was Cleveland. Marc Stein had reported that the Cavs were enamored enough with Hickson’s long-term potential that they instead opted to trade for Antawn Jamison, who was 33 at the time.

The Stoudemire near-trade is one of the great what-ifs of the decade, and its reverberations (antiresonance?) influenced everything thereafter: the second-round collapse against the Celtics, The Decision, the Miami Heat, the clutch narrative, the multiple championships, the return. Knowing what we know now about Stoudemire’s deteriorating body, perhaps the trade would’ve been a Faustian bargain with significant long-term consequences. But in the moment, it was the one opportunity to pair LeBron with a superstar sidekick he’d always deserved to play alongside. It was the gamble the team needed to make to secure its future. The Cavs didn’t make it. In early December 2010, Stoudemire, then a Knick playing some of the best individual basketball of his life, shared an alternate history, one where he had actually joined forces with LeBron. “He would have stayed in Cleveland,” Stoudemire told the New York Daily News. “And I wouldn’t have had a problem playing in Cleveland. I would have signed there. But it didn’t happen.”

Funny coincidence: The 2017-18 Cavs, too, tied the franchise record for consecutive wins with 13, just over a month into the season. In 2009-10, it happened right before the All-Star break; in 2008-09, it happened just as the season was headed to a close. It’s just what happens when history repeats itself: Old trajectories are streamlined and accelerated. Eight years after 2010’s deadline debacle, we aren’t waiting for 2018’s parallel—it’s already happened. The Cavs’ intra-team turmoil that is unfolding before our eyes is simply a reckoning of the fact.

Cleveland has lost 11 games since Christmas, and its prospects aren’t getting any rosier. Kevin Love fractured his left hand on Tuesday against the Pistons and is expected to be out six to eight weeks. They have the worst defense in the NBA. Isaiah Thomas has been a minimized version of his already miniature self since returning in the new year. “We’ve been a lowest-five defensive team in the NBA the whole time,” Thomas told reporters last weekend. “So when I come back, it’s my fault now? Which, life isn’t fair, but that’s not fair, bro.” Tensions are coming to a head, and whether or not Thomas is truly at fault with his disappointing play, his presence on the court might as well be that of the ghost of deadline past.

The narrative surrounding the Cavs’ acquisition of Jamison was the emergence of Hickson, an explosive rim runner who had developed an excellent rapport in the pick-and-roll with James. He’d averaged 24 minutes per game in the second half of the season, but could muster only two minutes of garbage time in the first three games of their first-round series against the Bulls. Then-coach Mike Brown was preoccupied with getting Shaq back into game shape after missing the last two months of the regular season. An overemphasis on involving O’Neal in the offense meant driving lanes were clogged; James, the most important player in the NBA in the final games before he could opt out of his contract, was being handicapped by his own coach. What followed was a classic, crystalline display of LeBron James’s passive-aggression:

“I’m not going to sit here and say what lineups we should be play or what we should do, but I know the game and I know the feel of the game,” he said. “I’m not trying to make a pitch for J.J., but we all saw what he was able to do during the regular season with his size and athleticism. His ability to put pressure on the rim, that’s something you can’t substitute in this league—guys who can catch the ball and jump.”

Every word of his Hickson description went tenfold for Stoudemire. The subtext was clear: You guys didn’t trade for Amar’e because you believed in this kid. Well then why the hell isn’t he on the court?

These days, when LeBron is staring at that ghost, it isn’t Amar’e he’s wistful for.

“What’s really pissing LeBron off is that he felt like the Cavs could have gotten Paul George and Eric Bledsoe, and they didn’t get him,” Brian Windhorst told Zach Lowe on a recent Lowe Post podcast.

Before the Cavs’ and Celtics’ strange, weeklong, will-they-won’t-they dance that eventually led to the Kyrie Irving–Isaiah Thomas trade (before the George trade that fell like an asteroid just as free agency was set to commence), there was a rumored three-way deal between the Cavs, Pacers, and Suns involving Irving, George, Bledsoe, and the no. 4 overall pick in 2017. Cleveland allegedly would have netted both George and Bledsoe in the trade. Like the Stoudemire deal, it’s unclear just how close the negotiations got (Phoenix was allegedly unwilling to part with its pick, which might one day look as bad as holding onto Hickson). But also like the Stoudemire trade, it was the kind of blockbuster deal that would truly move the needle for a player of LeBron’s caliber. It might be the second strike in eight years; Cleveland won’t get a third.

The biggest names that have arisen as Cavs trade targets hew closer to the safety that Jamison promised eight years ago. George Hill, a smart, versatile, but physically compromised combo guard, seemed like a lock until he wasn’t. DeAndre Jordan is exactly the kind of rim protector the Cavs are completely devoid of on their roster, and the recent ouster of Blake Griffin makes a full-on exile of Lob City’s last residents all the more likely, no matter what Doc Rivers has said publicly. But Jordan’s utility in today’s game has a hard ceiling, especially if the goal is to defeat the Warriors. There’s a chance that isn’t the goal anymore. Bleacher Report’s Ken Berger, citing league sources, said that there’s a sense that Dan Gilbert has taken over the team’s basketball operations. And acquiring a player like Jordan might necessitate trading the unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick, which was reportedly so highly coveted by Gilbert in the first place. It seems more and more likely that the next move the Cavs make won’t do much more than stop Cleveland’s ongoing hemorrhage. That won’t be enough to keep LeBron, but maybe they already know that.